When Kamala Harris announced her presidential candidacy in January 2019, she was met with glowing profiles, grassroots excitement, and ready donors. Rolling Stone praised "her intensity and intelligence," and NPR declared that "Harris says she was bent toward a career fighting for civil rights almost since birth." The Washington Post gushed about the firsts—"the first woman, the first African American woman, the first Indian American and the first Asian American"—she would bring to the presidency. In the first 24 hours after Harris' announcement, her campaign reportedly raised $1.5 million. Vanity Fair asked, "Is Kamala Harris the New 2020 Frontrunner?" MSNBC host Rachel Maddow was even more direct. "Honestly," she said, "I think there is a good chance that you are going to win the nomination."
Eleven months later, Harris left the race. Her campaign had been plagued by inconsistent and vague policy positions, disarray and disagreement among her campaign staff, and a tough-on-crime past come back to haunt her.
Harris had made her law enforcement experience central to her pitch, often suggesting she was the best one to "prosecute the case" against President Donald Trump. Yet she appeared flummoxed—stumbling or deflecting—when asked to defend moves she had made as a prosecutor. For instance, when Anderson Cooper asked about fellow candidate Tulsi Gabbard's criticisms of Harris' criminal justice record, Harris responded not by making a case for her record but by calling herself a "top-tier candidate" and pointing out that Gabbard was polling far beneath her.
Harris' stumbles led many to wonder whether the candidate, who had climbed the political ladder in California's deeply Democratic circles, was really fit for a national campaign.
Yet she ended up on the Democratic presidential ticket anyway, at least partly because of party pressure on Biden to pick a black woman as running mate. As The New York Times reported in November 2020, "no other candidate scored as highly with Mr. Biden's selection committee on so many of their core criteria for choosing a running mate, including her ability to help Mr. Biden win in November, her strength as a debater, her qualifications for governing and the racial diversity she would bring to the ticket."
After a tumultuous election, she followed Joe Biden into electoral victory as the vice president. Suddenly, the candidate who couldn't hack the campaign trail was a heartbeat away from the presidency.
And not just any presidency. Not only is Joe Biden the oldest president in U.S. history, but he has presided over a period of widespread dissatisfaction with the direction of the country under Democratic Party rule. Inevitably, that led to questions, even within his own party, about whether he would—or should—run again. "Should Biden Run Again? The Question Is Dividing Democrats," read a September 2022 headline in Time. Around the same time, Biden himself was circumspect, saying his intention to run again is "just an intention. But is it a firm decision that I run again? That remains to be seen." Even after Democrats' relatively successful showing in the November midterms, Biden was guarded about his future: He said he expected to run again but wouldn't make an official decision until 2023. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni didn't seem certain: Two days after the election, he wrote that the president was "no sure thing for 2024," citing Biden's "age" and "energy."
But if not Biden, then who? In some ways, Harris looks like his natural successor. Not only is she the vice president, but polls showed her running ahead of other potential Democratic contenders. Yet Harris' time as vice president has been marked by the same sorts of stumbles and false starts that plagued her campaign. In her nearly two years since assuming office, Harris has failed to find a signature issue or define herself in any way. The biggest headlines she has garnered come from a series of silly gaffes and awkward interviews, and from turmoil among her staff.
The result has been an odd not-quite-succession plan that says as much about the state of the Democratic Party's electoral fortunes and its penchant for box-checking diversity candidates as it does about Harris' individual weaknesses. Whether or not Biden chooses to run for reelection in 2024, Harris is widely understood to be the Democratic front-runner in waiting—or at the very least a leading light of the party's up-and-coming next generation. Yet no one can quite explain why.
No Signature Issue
In October 2022, when a Harvard-Harris poll (no relation) asked Democratic voters whom they would vote for if Biden doesn't run, Harris came out on top, with 25 percent of respondents. That was up from 19 percent in May 2022, and it was a far better showing than the 10 percent who picked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, often portrayed as Harris' main competition for the post-Biden crown. Next on the list was Hillary Clinton, who garnered 17 percent of the response. Viewed through these numbers, Harris looks like the party's future.
Yet Harris is far from an overwhelmingly popular figure. The same Harvard-Harris poll put her national favorability rating at 40 percent, while 50 percent viewed her unfavorably. A Los Angeles Times analysis of national opinion polls said that as of October 2022, Harris was at 39 percent favorable, 53 percent unfavorable. Harris does especially poorly among important voting blocs, including older voters (only 33 percent favorable) and independents (30 percent favorable).
Moreover, she's seen a notable drop in favorability from when she first took office—down 14 percentage points, according to the Los Angeles Times. Harris' vice presidency has been marked by the same fanfare and then fizzle as her presidential campaign. She got the job, but she couldn't make the case for herself.
Part of the problem is that Harris has struggled to find a signature issue even as she's taken on a number of high-profile policy projects. Biden has stacked her portfolio with nominally significant responsibilities, such as voting rights, abortion, and even water policy, which touches on a web of hot-button progressive priorities, from climate change to equity to poverty. Yet "critics of Harris see her vice presidency so far as a collection of unconnected set pieces," wrote Edward-Isaac Dovere in The Atlantic in May 2021. "Harris arrives somewhere with the plane and the motorcade and the Secret Service agents, makes a few mostly bland statements, then tells whomever she's meeting with about how she's going to bring their stories back to Washington. Then she's quickly out of sight again."
Little has changed in the year and a half since. Harris has delivered standard Democratic talking points about the issue of the day or the news cycle. But she hasn't managed to make her work on any of it matter.
That's especially true when it comes to what is arguably Harris' most prominent issue area, border policy. In March 2021, Biden put the vice president in charge of "leading the Administration's diplomatic efforts to address the root causes of migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras."
It was "a ludicrous assignment," says Cato Institute immigration analyst David J. Bier, who calls it a "stopping-the-seas-from-rising" kind of job: "At the end of the day, migration's being driven by factors that are outside of U.S. control." Besides, Harris had no authority to actually change U.S. immigration policy.
One could imagine a vice president at least playing a robust rhetorical role here, shifting the conversation around the issue or the administration's take on it, rallying Democrats behind an inspired and inspiring message. But rather than outline a coherent policy vision, Harris made a series of awkward decisions and comments that angered many Democrats and gave fodder to Republicans.
The latter loved to point out that Harris hadn't actually visited the Southern border since becoming vice president. In June 2021, grilled about this by NBC's Lester Holt, Harris grew defensive; she eventually responded sarcastically, "And I haven't been to Europe." In reality, an earlier visit to the border wouldn't have made any difference for migration. But not going at all gave Harris critics more fodder and perhaps wasted an opportunity for proactive messaging.
Harris' muddled response—which included a diatribe about figuring out the root causes of migration—both failed to make clear that general U.S.-Mexico border policy was not her business and came across like the administration was writing a term paper, not trying to create real-world change. Harris did eventually visit Guatemala, and there she didn't mince words. "I want to be clear to folks in the region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come," she said, then repeated it. "Do not come. I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back."
It was a disappointing statement for anyone who hoped the Biden administration's immigration policy would be a total departure from Trump's.
"Those words were criticized for coming from the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, and for contradicting what she had said during the electoral campaign," wrote the Mexican-American journalist Jorge Ramos. In March 2019, Harris said she disagreed "with any policy that would turn America's back on people who are fleeing harm" and "would not enforce a law that would reject people and turn them away without giving them a fair and due process to determine if we should give them asylum and refuge."
Some have speculated that Biden deliberately gave Harris an impossible task, but Bier thinks it's more likely that he was simply following the precedent Obama set when he sent then-V.P. Biden down to Central America in 2014. But back then, "the vast majority of the kids were coming up on these trains, and it was the easiest thing in the world to shut down these trains." Now, "there's no easy 'just kick 'em off the trains' solution."
"Once that became obvious, [Harris] didn't want anything to do with this subject anymore," Bier adds. "She made her speech telling them not to come and then after that just tried to ghost on the issue."
The 'Say Anything' Candidate
The discrepancy between Harris' migration rhetoric as a candidate and as vice president contributes to the picture of her as slippery, a flip-flopper, hard to pin down. Accusations of fair-weather convictions have dogged Harris for a long time—and for good reason.
In Congress, Harris sponsored a Medicare for All bill; on the presidential campaign trail, she sometimes supported universal health care and sometimes didn't. She tried to shut down the sex work–friendly website Backpage as attorney general of California, then offered support for decriminalizing sex work at the start of her presidential campaign, then later said on a debate stage that she would still arrest men paying for sex. Running for San Francisco district attorney, Harris said she wouldn't use the state's three-strikes policy when the third strike wasn't a serious or violent felony; in office, she went back on that promise. Examples like these are numerous.
Taken together, they paint Harris as someone willing to say whatever is popular in the moment but not willing to follow through or to hold that position when winds even hint at changing.
This has hindered her embrace by criminal justice reformers, even though Harris now sometimes makes statements more supportive of marijuana legalization and other reforms. It's hard to take Harris seriously on these issues after she spent so much time as a prosecutor putting people in jail for weed or at least condoning their incarceration.
That brings us to another problem with a potential Harris presidential campaign. Though she has done little as vice president, she has a long career in public service. A different candidate could use that to prove her bona fides. But much of what Harris stood for in California is at odds with what the Harris of 2022 purportedly stands for, or at least anathema to the people she would be courting votes from.
As San Francisco district attorney, Harris increased prosecutions and convictions for "misdemeanor quality-of-life crimes" and pushed for giving fewer people access to the city's Drug Court, which offers alternatives to incarceration. ("I don't think drug crime is a victimless crime," she told the San Francisco Examiner in 2006.) D.A. Harris also opposed a prostitution decriminalization measure, helped federal officials raid immigrant businesses, hid misconduct by a drug lab technician, and helped launch an anti-truancy initiative that would bring criminal charges against parents if their kids missed too much school.
As California attorney general, she fought against a court ruling that the state's death penalty was unconstitutional, fought to keep people in overcrowded prisons after a court ordered them released, defended the state corrections department's denial of surgery for transgender inmates, and refused to back a measure requiring more scrutiny of police use-of-force cases. She also fought to shut down Backpage while publicly ignoring sexual misconduct involving Oakland police and an underage girl. And 1,974 people were sent to state prisons for marijuana or hashish possession while Harris was California's top cop.
At the start of the Biden administration, there was arguably much more media excitement surrounding Kamala Harris than around Biden, who was largely seen as a safe and electable pick but not one worth making a fuss about. This stood in contrast to Harris—the first female vice president, and a black and Asian woman at that, with a sleek image and a willingness to say things young progressives liked to hear. But as Biden has navigated a tough midterm and backed progressive causes such as student debt cancellation, energy around Harris has languished.
Some counter that Harris is in an odd spot because she can't appear to be campaigning. But that doesn't preclude her appearing to actually care about some issues, a feat she hasn't quite managed.
Others suggest Harris has been hindered by animosity or lack of trust between her office and Biden's. That may be so, but even then, it hardly renders Harris blameless.
Part of a politician's job is finding a way to work together with those in her coalition—and sometimes beyond—for the common good. Not only has Harris not found a way to work with the rest of the administration, but she's struggled to work comfortably with her own staff, many of whom have departed after brief stints on the job.
A June report in Politico described Harris' office as "tense and at times dour," marked by chaotic moments, low morale, and low trust. One person "with direct knowledge of how Harris' office is run" described it as an unhealthy and "abusive" environment where "people are thrown under the bus from the very top." Some defended Harris and attributed the criticism to racism and sexism. But while that may be true at the margins, former staffer Gil Duran said in December 2021, "white supremacy does not explain the internal psychodramas causing Harris' staff and her White House colleagues to betray her in public repeatedly." None of this bodes well for a potential executive, much less a coalition builder for a fractious party.
The discrepancy between how Harris was viewed entering the vice presidency and how she is viewed two years in is telling. She entered office to fanfare, then delivered disappointing results: bungled interviews, unhappy staffers, flip-flops, a failure to own any issue or commit to anything, a lack of a clear message or overarching reason for being. Which is to say, she's delivered an unremarkable vice presidency that looks a lot like her shambolic presidential campaign.
There's no doubt that Harris checks the modern Democratic Party's necessary diversity boxes—female, black, Asian, the multiracial child of immigrants. But in Harris' case, that demonstrably hasn't been enough.
It's hard to avoid the sense that the party has been so enamored with the package this particular candidate comes in that it's willing to overlook what lies beneath the surface. Harris' problems are her own. But in making this unremarkable candidate an avatar of the party's future, the party has made her problems their own too, embracing box-checking at the expense of political or administrative competence. Some say "third time's a charm," but a more relevant adage may be "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." Eventually, Biden will leave politics. When that happens, will Harris fool her party a third time?
Edited by John Osterhoudt; additional graphics by Tomasz Kaye; camera by Isaac Reese, Justin Zuckerman, and Adam Czarnecki
Photo: Adam Schultz/ZUMA Press/Newscom; John Lamparski/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Paul Hennessy / SOPA Images/Sipa/Newscom; Jose Luis Villegas/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Al Drago – Pool via CNP / MEGA / Newscom; Steve Rhodes/Flickr/Creative Commons; Jeff Topping/Polaris/Newscom; Joel Lerner Xinhua News Agency/Newscom; Greg Nash/UPI/Newscom; Jonathan Ernst/ZUMA Press/Newscom